Vulnerability definitions

Submitted by Sukaina Bharwani | published 25th Mar 2011 | last updated 13th May 2019
Flooding India

The ordinary use of the word ‘vulnerability’ refers to the capacity to be wounded, i.e., the degree to which a system is likely to experience harm due to exposure to a hazard.

The scientific use of ‘vulnerability’ has its roots in geography and natural hazards research but this term is now a central concept in a variety of research contexts such as natural hazards and disaster management, ecology, public health, poverty and development, secure livelihoods and famine, sustainability science, land change, and climate impacts and adaptation. 

In order to make sense of the range of definitions, the different interpretations and definitions can be seen to be  rooted in three academic disciplines namely risk and hazard or biophysical approaches, political economy and the concept of ecological resilience. Some are focused on systems, places and activities, some on individuals, livelihoods, sectors, landscapes, ecosystems. Generally definitions relate to a product of exposure and resilience.

 Box 1 provides two definitions that are widely used:

 

Climate-related risks interact with other biophysical and social stressors. Vulnerability is defined in the WGII TAR Glossary in terms of susceptibility and as a “function of the character, magnitude, and rate of climate variation to which a system is exposed, its sensitivity, and its adaptive capacity.” Since then, the understanding of vulnerability has acquired increased complexity as a multidimensional concept, with more attention to the relation with structural conditions of poverty and inequality. WGII AR5 defines vulnerability simply as the 'propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected.Vulnerability encompasses a variety of concepts including sensitivity or susceptibility to harm and lack of capacity to cope and adapt" and many chapters of the IPCC report identify such vulnerabilities through societal risks, particularly in low-income economies (see  IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Glossary)

The three components of vulnerability, according to the IPCC definition are:
  • exposure,
  • sensitivity,
  • adaptive capacity.

Below are a selection of definitions, highlighting the need to understand what exactly is meant when 'vulnerability' is written about divided into the disciplines of their origin. The summary of the three lineages is taken from a paper by Eakin and Luers (2006) and examples of each are given though in some cases they are difficult to place as they span the range of lineages.

You may also want to explore different frameworks for assessing vulnerability, guidance on vulnerability assessment and this short module on vulnerability assessment.

Risk/hazard definitions

The focal questions in this lineage are: What are the hazards? What are the impacts. What is exposed, to what, where and when?

Key attributes: Exposure (physical threat, external to system), sensitivity

Exposure unit: Places, sectors, activities, landscapes, regions

Decision scale: Regional global

  • Political economy/political ecology lineage

Focal question: How are people and places affected differently?

What explains differential capacities to cope and adapt?

What are the causes and consequences of differential susceptibility?

Key attributes: Capacity, sensitivity, exposure

Exposure unit: Individuals, households, social groups

Decision scale: Local, regional, global

Ecological resilience thinking

Focal question: Why and how do systems change?

What is the capacity to respond to change?

What are the underlying processes that control the ability to cope or adapt?

Key attributes: Thresholds of change, reorganisation; Capacity

Exposure Unit: Ecosystems, coupled human-environmental systems

Decision scale: Landscapes, ecological regions, multiple scales

 

 

Year

Definition

Source

2001

.. the opposite of resilience, where resilience is ‘the capacity of a system to undergo disturbance and maintain its function and controls’

Carpenter,S.,Walker, B.,Anderies, J.,Abel, N. (2001) Ecosystems 4:765-781

2014

vulnerability tends to focus on changes to system state without considering the direction of trajectories explicitly. High vulnerability may occur because exposure is high, sensitivity is high (low resistance), and/or adaptive capacity is low e.g. an impacted reef fails to recover to a desirable state.

Mumby, P.J., Chollett, I., Bozec, Y-M, and Wolff, N.H.(2014)

Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 2014, 7:22–27

 

http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2013.11.021

 

Further resources